This article deals with the parable known as ‘The Rich Man and Lazarus’ or ‘Abraham’s Bosom’. In the book Love Wins Rob Bell uses this parable to teach that hell is more a state of mind than an actual place and that if we can change our mindset we can be free from hell. He teaches that hell is not forever and in eternity we will have the option to be set free.
Is this sound teaching?
Where does this understanding come from?
According to Bell this is laid out for us in the parable of ‘Abraham’s Bosom’.
What is a Parable?
The simple and direct definition provided by Merriam-Webster is:
“a usually short fictitious story that illustrates a moral attitude or a religious principle” 
Sounds simple right?
Take a topic that is hard to understand – such as the afterlife – and tell it in a way that people can understand it. Use language and examples they are familiar with and they can immediately get the meaning without the need to go into further detail. By the above definition we can also be certain that these are not actual events. Although we can tell a parable with actual people to help further the understanding, the events are still a fictitious story.
A parable is a simple story told to clarify a complex issue.
It is not a deep instructional message overflowing with hidden symbolism and unclear details.
It is a simple story told to clarify a complex issue.
It is not a story that cannot be understood without other interpretation.
It is a simple story told to clarify a complex issue.
Have I made that point enough yet?
Well just to be certain let me emphasize this one last time.
A parable is a simple story told to clarify a complex issue. At least this is the reason Jesus spoke in parables. Two things are clear about Jesus’ teaching by parables.
- He presented his message in a way people could understand it
- He expected people to understand what he was teaching
Peter said, “Explain the parable to us.”
“Are you still so dull?” Jesus asked them. (Matthew 15:15–16, NIV84)
Ouch! That seems harsh.
The English Standard Version of the Bible says, “Are you also still without understanding?”
The Living Translations says, “Don’t you understand yet?”
Those sound a little better, but the point is still the same. In Jesus’ mind he was very clear in his message and expected people (especially his disciples) to understand what it was he was saying. The Gospels are loaded with parables and their explanation. When Jesus spoke he did so in the best way he could convey the mysteries of the Kingdom of Heaven – he used parables.
So what is the parable of Abraham’s Bosom and how does Rob Bell interpret it?
Abraham was the father of Israel. He was the patriarch of Jewish people as a nation and a religion. The King James refers to ‘Abraham’s bosom’ as the place taken after death; most modern translations state this as ‘Abraham’s side’. The meaning, either way, is that the dead who are brought to ‘Abraham’s side’ are in the care, protection and intimacy of Abraham. This was commonly understood at the time as ‘Paradise’ or how today we would say ‘Heaven’. So the story goes like this:
There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores. The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. In hell, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, “Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.” But Abraham replied, “Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.” He answered, “Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my father’s house, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.” Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.” “No, father Abraham”, he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.” He said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” (Luke 16:19–31, NIV84)
The gist of this parable seems to be easy to follow.
If you are a bad person in the current life you will suffer in the afterlife. Once in the afterlife, there is no changing the situation – we are given everything we need in this life to make the correct decisions and if we don’t then it is our own fault.
Well not according to Bell. In Love Wins Rob Bell decides that since this meaning doesn’t jive with his theology he will look deeper into the parable until he can force his interpretation to be seen. This is common amongst false teachings. They tend to ignore the obvious meaning and go deeper until they can make some obscure points and create a connection that doesn’t exist.
Love Wins Interpretation
According to Rob Bell the teaching of this parable is as follows:
The rich man is in his torment in hell because he still sees himself as the rich man in the afterlife. He still sees himself as the one in charge and he’s giving orders to Abraham and Lazarus.
…note what it is the man wants in hell: he wants Lazarus to get him water. When you get someone water, you’re serving them.
The rich man wants Lazarus to serve him.
In their previous life, the rich man saw himself as better than Lazarus, and now, in hell, the rich man still sees himself as above Lazarus. It’s no wonder Abraham says there’s a chasm that can’t be crossed. The chasm is the rich man’s heart! It hasn’t changed, even in death and torment and agony. He’s still clinging to the old hierarchy. He still thinks he’s better. 
So does this mean that if he could change his heart he could get out of hell?
Is that possible?
Wait, there’s more.
According to Bell; hell is not a place but rather a state of mind:
What we see in Jesus’s story about the rich man and Lazarus is an affirmation that there are all kinds of hells…
There are individual hells, and communal, society-wide hells, and Jesus teaches us to take both seriously.
There is hell now, and there is hell later, and Jesus teaches us to take both seriously. 
Do you see the obscure points and the connections being made? In this teaching hell is not a place – it’s a state of mind. If we can only change our mind then we can change our hell.
So according to Bell – Jesus did not say hell is a place but rather a state of mind.
Sounds a lot like another conversation;
“You will not surely die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3:4–5, NIV84)
This is where deception comes in. We will not die, we will not suffer forever, we will not be punished, and a chasm that cannot be crossed actually can be crossed.
Bell doesn’t come right out and say this but rather makes a bunch of insinuations and conclusions – but never a definitive statement.
Jesus teaches again and again that the gospel is about a death that leads to life…
He’s [the rich man] still clinging to his ego, his status, his pride…
He’s dead, but he hasn’t died.
…he still hasn’t died the kind of death that actually brings life.
He’s alive in death, but in profound torment because he’s living with the realities of not properly dying the kind of death that actually leads a person into the only kind of life that’s worth living.
A pause, to recover from that last sentence. 
Yeah, I paused alright.
When I first read this I had to go back and read it again. I couldn’t believe what I thought Bell was saying because he never actually said it – but the fact that he told me to pause to recover made me certain he did say it.
We can cross that chasm if we just get born-again in death!
There is salvation in the afterlife!
We get a second chance after death!
This is the whole message of Love Wins.
This is deception at its core – You will not surely die!
This is why his book is subtitled ‘A book about Heaven, Hell, and the fate of every person who ever lived’.
The only problem is this is a direct contradiction of scripture.
Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment. (Hebrews 9:27, NIV84)
In his commentary on Luke; Darrell Bock makes this statement:
“Many today reason that a loving God will change his mind in heaven and grant eternal life to many who do not honor him now; they say there is no permanent judgment or condemnation from God. Abraham disagrees.” 
How do we know what Abraham thinks?
…between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us. (Luke 16:26, NIV84)
Oh yeah, the great chasm. It sounds like once you are in either place – no one goes to the other place – ever. The amazing thing about this entire discussion of this story is that Abraham puts this debate to rest with his own words.
Abraham disagrees with Rob Bell!
Better yet – it is Jesus who is telling the story and placing the words in Abraham’s mouth.
Jesus disagrees with Rob Bell!
This entire argument from Bell’s side is based on one major point. Bell states that the rich man is giving orders in hell, not even learning his lesson. He is not repentant and he still thinks he is superior.
So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’ (Luke 16:24, NIV84)
Did you notice he uses the word ‘pity’?
Does that sound like a superior man?
King James translates this as ‘mercy’ and Young’s translates ‘deal kindly’.
This man is not being arrogant and giving an order, he is asking for mercy. Bell must gather his usage of ‘demand’ from the translation of the word ‘beg’ (erotáo) in verse 27.
He answered, “Then I beg you, father (Abraham), send Lazarus to my father’s house” (Luke 16:27, NIV84)
This must be why Bell believes the man is arrogant – he is demanding of Abraham.
Kittle defines two senses of the word. The first sense is ‘to ask’, ‘seek information’. This is more as a question and is not likely the meaning here. The second sense is ‘to request’ or ‘demand’.
This must be the way Bell interprets this ‘demand’ – as an authoritative order.
However, the same word is used of the disciples in demanding of Jesus to do something but is translated as ‘urged’.
Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.” (Matthew 15:23, NIV84)
And again of the Jews to Pilate;
Now it was the day of Preparation, and the next day was to be a special Sabbath. Because the Jews did not want the bodies left on the crosses during the Sabbath, they asked Pilate to have the legs broken and the bodies taken down. (John 19:31, NIV84)
Were they really ordering Jesus and Pilate or were they urging out of desperation?
Isn’t this most likely the same desperate asking, urging, demanding Kittle references?
The New Living Translation gives an excellent translation of the emotions in this situation;
Then the rich man said, “Please, Father Abraham, at least send him to my father’s home” (Luke 16:27, NLT)
Does Rob Bell have the correct word definition on the usage of the word ‘beg’ as used in this passage?
Is Rob Bell correct, and every translation of this passage we have to date inaccurate in the translation of this meaning?
Not one translation insinuates that the rich man is giving orders – but exactly the opposite. Each translation interprets this request as more of a plea and not in any means a demand.
This whole argument falls apart when examined closely. Rob Bell’s teaching is not accurate – it is twisting scripture in a deceitful way. The rich man is in torment, he is suffering, he is pleading with Abraham and he is sorrowful – that’s why he wants his brothers told and rescued. He is very regretful and he knows the decision is made and there is no hope for him.
Rob Bell is correct that Jesus teaches us to take hell seriously. We should be taking eternity very seriously. Our decisions and the way we choose to live this life today directly effects our eternity. We are separated from God because we are born into a cursed world. We see this evidence every time we watch the news. The amazing grace is that God has provided us a way to be rescued from this curse. The way is through Jesus – not through his teachings as some like to believe, but through himself – through his sacrifice as our punishment we can be reunited with God and take our place in eternity in Abraham’s bosom, paradise, heaven.
 Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, 2011
 Rob Bell, Love Wins (HarperOne, 2011) pg. 75.
 Rob Bell, Love Wins (HarperOne, 2011) pg. 79.
 Rob Bell, Love Wins (HarperOne, 2011) pgs. 76-77.
 Darrell L. Bock, Luke, The IVP New Testament commentary series (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1994). Lk 16:19.